I wrote a couple of years ago about the supposed increasing extinction of species, and want to spend today’s essay on a paper about the state of the oceans, or more accurately, about those who write about it. But first, a summary of just how different 2014 was in temperature terms. All the data are now in, and they are summarised by Ole Humlum on climate4you, which I regard as the best of the dataset summaries. You can see there that 2014 was not a special year. Even those who think it was the ‘hottest ever recorded’ have trouble showing that it was. Another source, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, says that 2014 was warm, but so were other years — and that the margins between them are smaller than the error involved.
I was tickled to discover that Gavin Schmidt, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science (GISS), the principal trumpeter of 2014 as the hottest year, had been quite matter of fact a year earlier about 2013, which was not, on any measure, the hottest. One more year of numbers isn’t in itself significant, he said then. What matters is this decade is warmer than the last decade, and that decade was warmer than the decade before. The planet is warming. The reason it’s warming is because we are pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The problem for Dr Schmidt is that we are indeed pumping that stuff up, but the temperature is not rising in sympathy. You can see the problem in Humlum’s graph of CO2 and temperature, using GISS data, here.
On the face of it, what we are seeing today is a kind of repeat of the period prior to 1975: the global temperature anomaly is not increasing, but CO2 is rising steadily.
OK, on to the oceans. I wrote a while ago about John Ioannidis, who decided that much published medical research needed replication, and that far too much of the ‘knowledge’ doctors relied upon was flawed. I came across a similar perspective on the frequently heard assertion that we are all going to die because we are ruining the oceans. You can read the paper here. ‘Reconsidering Ocean Calamities’ is by Carlos Duarte and seven others, most of them Australian, and it is thought important enough for Nature to have devoted an editorial to its message.
What is the message? [A]ccounts of the deterioration of the oceans stemming from the scientific community run the risk of conveying the hopeless notion to managers and the public that we are confronted with an insurmountable environmental crisis of gigantic proportions. Although emphasizing problems may be intended to propel remedial action, it may achieve the contrary, because an overly negative message may lead society into pessimism or the belief that the ocean is beyond restoration.
No one who reads the Australian press or follows news on our television could dispute that. We are almost bombarded with claims that the Great Barrier Reef is under severe threat, or on the verge of extinction, while the oceans are turning acid in front of our eyes. Duarte et al comment on both issues.
How has this happened? [W]e contend that the marine research community may not have remained sufficiently skeptical in sending and receiving information on the problems caused by human pressures in the ocean and that there is a need to revisit the process by which potential or isolated problems escalate to the status of ocean calamities… Scientists are expected to remain skeptical, questioning, or doubting or to suspend judgment until sufficient evidence and proof is offered to draw conclusions through organised skepticism… However, there is a perception that scientific skepticism has been abandoned or relaxed in many areas, which has allowed opinion, beliefs, and tenacious adherence to particular theories to play a major role in holding beliefs based on interpretations unsupported by evidence.
The authors do not dispute that there can be what they call ‘calamities’, and over-fishing is one of them. The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery is perhaps the most celebrated example, but Duarte and colleagues warn that it is all too easy to jump from one real example to an assumption that all the other possible issues will be calamities too.
[O]nce hypothetical problems have risen to the status of calamities in the literature, they seem to become self-perpetuating. Indeed, the marine research community seems much better endowed with the capacity to add new calamities to the list than they are to remove them following critical scrutiny… there are flaws in the processes in place to sanction scientific evidence, such as organized skepticism, that need to be addressed to help weed out robust from weak cases for ocean calamities.
They offer a long list of reasons for this situation, but conclude: The rise of ocean calamities has generated a worldview in which a host of ecological syndromes resulting from human-driven pressures is leading to the collapse of the ocean. The addition of new problems, such as new invasive species, ocean acidification and deoxygenation, or the perils from plastic pollution, to the litany validates and strengthens this worldview, forming a more compelling case for action to reduce human pressures.
Although reducing human pressures on the marine environment is a positive outcome, this may provide a motivation to inadvertently—or, in worst cases, deliberately—fall into the white hat bias, defined as “bias leading to distortion of information in the service of what may be perceived to be righteous ends”… Clearly, no righteous end justifies the perpetuation of scientific bias.
It’s a good read, despite the gross over-use of ‘However’ to start a sentence. The Nature editorial deals with it fairly, and recognises that Duarte et al aimed a shaft or two at Nature itself. Since Carlos Duarte has managed to get a critical paper into the holy of holies, you might wonder about his future. He wonders a bit, too. Nature quotes him as saying: There are a lot of conversations around meetings about the excess doom and gloom in our reporting of ocean health, but perhaps this is the first paper to bring these concerns out of the privacy of peer conversations. This is a silent movement, as there is a lot of peer pressure against voicing those concerns openly, so my co-authors and I expect significant heat upon us to be derived from our paper.
I hope not.